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June 02 2010

19:20

WaPo rezones a neighborhood on its site, builds a new local point of entry

Following its recent launch of PostPolitics, The Washington Post today unveiled another stand-alone landing page at PostLocal.com. The page pulls together existing local content from its Metro section, plus houses new blogs and a few interactive features. The goal is to build an engaged local community around a site-within-a-site.

The timing of PostLocal coincides with a hiring frenzy at its new startup competitor in Washington, TBD. The local online-only news venture, owned by Politico parent Allbritton, plans to launch this summer.

Maria Cereghino, a spokeswoman for the Post, told me in an email that she “would not characterize” PostLocal as a response to TBD. Still, there are some prominent similarities between the sites. PostLocal hosts the Post’s new local blog network, which offers a platform to a selection of local bloggers. TBD is working on a similar model and is currently in the midst of solidifying relationships with its own set of local bloggers, Steve Buttry of TBD told me.

PostLocal is also home to interactive tools, like “The Daily Gripe,” powered by SeeClickFix. Locals can post a complaint about problems in their neighborhoods, like a broken street sign, or a large pothole. The tool automatically sends a notification of the problem to the proper authority. Users can vote on gripes they like (or, perhaps, dislike) most; one gripe per day gets a full report.

PostLocal and PostPolitics represent a shift in thinking about how newspaper readers arrive at the paper’s website. Aside from readers who arrive via search or inbound links, the homepage has always been the primary point of entry for regular visitors. But as major news organizations have expanded their content in myriad directions, Post content is competing with itself for reader attention and a showcase spot on the front page. The PostPolitics redesign sought to change that, creating a place for politics-obsessed readers to get just the content they want, something they’ve already been able to do at sites like niche sites like Politico. Now, readers looking for just local content can do the same; if the Post can convince some portion of its audience to use PostLocal as its front door, that could mean a wider array of stories getting attention.

And there’s a potentially lucrative reason to build an engaged local audience. One startup, for example, Main Street Connect, which hopes to get 3,000 franchise-style sites off the ground in the next few years, just attracted $3.97 million in first round financing. AOL thinks it can make money on its growing network of Patch sites. Yahoo is wading in as well. Local advertising remains a largely untapped resource online, and newspapers still have the largest set of relationships with local advertisers in most markets. So even if the Post isn’t seeing a threat, it must at least see some dollar signs.

May 25 2010

18:00

Borrowing from burgers: franchise-model startup wants to make community news sites profitable

Launching a community news site is tough. You’ve got editorial decisions, like putting together a team of reporters and editors, plus technical hurdles like finding the right CMS and hosting service, and then there is the job of setting up and carrying out a successful business model. It’s a complicated set of factors that could defeat even a sharp journalist with a good idea for a local news site. A new startup called Main Street Connect aims to make it easier for entrepreneurial journalists to get their sites off the ground, keep them going, and make money. And it aims to do so via a model familiar to anyone who’s gotten the same McDonald’s burger in California as in Maine: franchising.

Main Street Connect launched this year under Carll Tucker, the founder of Trader Publications, a community news company he sold to Gannett in 1999. In watching the decline of community news in the last few years, Tucker, who is passionate about hyper-local news, wondered if he could come up with a model that would translate the revenue structure he enjoyed in the 1990s-era boom times to the web today. Display advertising doesn’t come close to the kind of money community newspapers once made. Ten years ago, Tucker said, he would pull in $20 to $25 per reader on advertising. If he could come close to the golden days of print in terms of revenue, he thought, he would see profits soar because the costs involved in publishing online are much less than printing news on paper. Tucker now believes he’s come up with something that could make money, and he’s got enough venture capital behind him to help get 3,000 sites off the ground in the next few years to test it out.

“The idea is to provide a local entrepreneur with all the tools he or she might need to start a prosperous — that is, profitable — high-quality site or group of sites,” Tucker told me in a phone conversation.

Tucker’s program is essentially a franchise model. A local team assembles the journalists who will cover a community, then Main Street Connect provides the framework for everything else, including the technical setup (and ongoing support), plus an underlying business strategy. In the long run, Main Street Connect hopes the network of independent local sites across the country will reach a sizable audience in the aggregate (comprised, Tucker hopes, of suburban moms who make household spending decisions), making the sites attractive to national brands. In the short term, publishers of local sites get the infrastructure help, plus the ongoing benefit from the collective insight of many sites working side by side. Main Street Connect also publishes five sites in Connecticut, and plans to launch more, which will act as incubators to test revenue-generating strategies. In exchange for that assistance, Main Street Connect takes 17 percent off the top of whatever a site pulls in.

The idea is a balance between the individual sites’ needs and the MSC franchise: Local site publishers handle the nitty-gritty of cultivating connections, but they employ the Main Street Connect strategy. Tucker wants small business owners investing in sites on a weekly, monthly or yearly basis, he says, rather than based on ad impressions. He also expects to charge advertisers upwards of $700 a week, a price tag that dwarfs a typical online ad on a small news site. When we spoke, Tucker had just wrapped up a deal worth $57,000 for the year for his sites in Connecticut. He was in talks with a hospital about another deal that could be worth $100,000.

Tucker’s approach takes into account the problem of fragmented media consumption. In the last few years, local businesses have had to buy more types of advertising to reach their audience (cable TV, radio, direct mail, etc.). There’s no single place to reach customers in their community. That’s where a Main Street Connect site comes in. If the community site can become an addictive place for heads of households, it can serve as an invaluable place for local businesses to be, as well.

And, so far, Tucker’s Connecticut sites are proving there is an appetite for community news online. His first site launched, the Daily Norwalk, attracted 11,000 pageviews and an average of four clicks per visit (in a city with a population of 83,000), with more than half of all readers returning at least one more time that month. Tucker tells businesses to think of the decision to invest in the site as joining the virtual “town green” as a true community member. In return, the business gets traditional ad space, its employees featured in a “neighbors” portion of the site, and — the biggest departure from traditional ad/editorial divisions — a guaranteed number of stories written about it in the Features section of the site. (The sites are broken up into different verticals, with stories about local business sponsors running in the Feature sections of the site, not the main news vertical. Those stories will look like other features a staff writer would produce.)

“We support those who support us,” Tucker explained.

It’s a good deal for the business, but what about the site’s responsibility to keep readers accurately informed? Tucker gave me this hypothetical. Say a local grocery store is embroiled in a tax scandal. The news section of the site will cover the scandal in the main news section, regardless of whether the store supports the site. The store would still get its feature-section piece, which would not link to the scandal coverage.

Tucker was quick to say that this model works for community news, but not necessarily regional, national or international news. Community news is about supporting your neighbors, he explained. The local site wants local businesses to succeed, and vice versa. It’s a symbiotic relationship. “The old paradigm — church, state, advertising and editorial — when you get to community news…becomes much murkier.”

Photo courtesy of Copakavanagh under a creative commons license.

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